________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 31. . . .April 12, 2013


Alec's Journey.

J. C. Wesley.
Winnipeg, MB: Pemmican Publications, 2012.
136 pp, trade pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-1-894717-65-6.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Darleen Golke.

*** /4



"How can they be clothes for me?" I asked. "Our clothes come from the animals we kill. They don't come in a box on a plane!" "Well, I can read 'Atungalik' on that parcel so it must be for you, my boy. The manager has decided that you are going to dress like a white boy now," he said with a grin. "Off you go! Oolaryko is waiting for you."

I'd wondered what the big wooden box in my room was for. It had three long drawers that went in and out. Now I knew. Quick as a fish jumps, Oolaryko had filled the drawers with my two suits, four shirts, woollen sweater, underwear and socks. A warm coat hung on a hook on the back of the door. Two pairs of shoes stood on the chest. "So many clothes just for me?" I cried. "I don't need them! Give some of them away to other boys in my size!"

"You can't do that! The Manager will tell you when you should wear your new clothes, and then you will wear all of them in turn," Oolaryko said. "Now come along, it's time for dinner."

So I went into the kitchen and she got my meal out of the stove, and then she left to make supper for Okoto. My food was always hot and always very good. She gave me meat or fish with lots of vegetables. And I always had what she called dessert. Maybe a fruit pudding. Sometimes I even had ice cream! The first time I ate ice cream I thought, this is the best thing I ever tasted. It just slips down my throat. If only my mother could have had ice cream when she wasn't well!

Other things had changed for me at Eskimo Point. Sometimes I helped Oolaryko with heavy jobs in the Manager's house, but most of the time I was in the storehouse with Okoto. At that time I wore a suit, shirt, socks and shoes. If it was cool I wore my woollen sweater, with my caribou amulet tucked inside.

I could see why I was dressed in a suit when I was on duty. The Inuit hunters treated me differently when I wore my suit and carried my red Hudson's Bay book and wrote their accounts in it. They depended on me and watched carefully what I wrote in the red book, even though they couldn't read what I wrote.


      In Ottawa, far from the Barrens, "the treeless land that stretches northward to the Arctic Ocean" of his birth, 12-year-old Atungalik, now known as Alec, shares his extraordinary journey with readers. Born to an Inuit family in June, 1950, "in a caribou-skin tent on the shores of Yathkyed Lake," Atungalik spends his early years in a small community. His mother's death and harsh, winter conditions and a shortage of food that killed many of the members of the settlement persuade Atungalik's father to head south hoping to work at Rankin Inlet Nickel Mine. He stops at the Hudson's Bay Company trading post at Padlei Post managed by Hugo Chalutalik, a relative of Atungalik's mother, and asks that the Chalutaliks care for his son. After consulting his wife, Chalutalik agrees, and Atungalik begins his new life. He lives with Okoto, who runs the warehouse, and his wife, Oolaryko, who works with Okoto doing bookkeeping. Six days of the week, Atungalik meets with Mrs. Chalutalik who teaches him the English language and other subjects. A talented artist, Mrs. Chalutalik‘s method of sketching and drawing to illustrate words works well for Atungalik, and he learns quickly. In May, the Padlei Post closes, and the Chalutaliks transfer to Eskimo Point taking Atungalik, Okoto, and Oolaryko with them. Atungalik now lives in the Chalutalik house, is provided with white man's clothing that he wears to work and becomes Alec. "Alec is just short for Atungalik, and you are now Alec, the bookkeeper."

When the dance is done they are not two things any more. They danced around and shared so much that they became one brand new thing.

      Alec's life changes again. His days are spent in the white man's world, working in the warehouse, taking lessons with Mrs. Chalutalik, attending church, and generally learning a new way of life, but he worries that he is losing his Inuit identity. Mrs. Chalutalik encourages Alec to act as her interpreter when she interviews Inuit individuals to gather material about Inuit subjects and landscapes to expand her art work. An Inuit carver, Irnak, who gives Alec lessons in soapstone carving tells him, "You have a gift . . . you must keep working at this gift." Sadly, in August, Alec learns that his father has died in a mine accident, but the Chalutaliks assure him he is part of their family and they will care for him. In January, the manager becomes ill, and by March, the Chalutaliks depart for Winnipeg for medical treatment. An interim manager arrives, and the work of the post goes on. By April, news arrives that Mr. Chalutalik is taking early retirement and moving to Elk Lake, ON, with his wife; they invite Alec to join them in Elk Lake. After thinking about what his mother would have liked for him, Alec agrees and another phase of his life begins.

      The trip by air to Winnipeg fascinates Alec, and his summer in Winnipeg with Mrs. Chalutalik's family exposes him to many new experiences. In August, the Chalutaliks board a train and head to Northern Ontario and a new home in Elk Lake. They ask Alec to call them Uncle Hugo and Aunt Mary so by the time Alec meets Hugo's cousin, Tom, and his wife, Annie, he is part of a family and adjusts to life in a small town. The new school principal, Mr. Hanson, and his family arrive, and Alec and their son, John, soon become close friends. When school begins, the boys share the same classroom, Grades 1-4, and Alec settles into a new environment smoothly learning about movies, Halloween, Christmas, and various activities as his studies progress. Unfortunately, Hugo must travel to Winnipeg for a checkup. and when he returns before Christmas, his recovery from the chemotherapy treatments is slow. By May, the Chalutaliks decide they must move back to Winnipeg and present Alec with several choices, among them the possibility of moving to Ottawa where Mr. Hanson has accepted a teaching position. A government grant is available to pay for Alec's education through high school, and the Hansons invite Alec to live with them. He hears his mother's voice advising him, "Don't look back, Atungalik. Look ahead and think of your future," and he agrees to choose Ottawa.

      July finds Alec settling into his life in Ottawa. After a leisurely summer, the boys start school, and Alec encounters his first unpleasant interactions with a teacher and with bullies. The teacher assumes Alec's skills are not up to par, but the teacher is forced to concede that Alec belongs at the grade 3-4 level when he does exceptionally well on the tests. Sadly, in November, Aunt Mary calls to tell Alec that Uncle Hugo has succumbed to cancer, dying in his sleep. She plans to come to Ottawa before Christmas and hopes that Alec will join her as an interpreter in the summer on a trip to the North to interview people for a book she is preparing. In the New Year, the Hansons move to another area of Ottawa so the boys can attend a better school, and life improves for the boys. Alec resumes his art studies under the tutelage of Kinuktut, a student of master sculptor, Ootnuyaw at the Britannia Inuit Gallery. "I would be reborn as an Inuit." Alec muses, "My life had changed so much in the years since my father and I had walked . . . to Padlei Post. Okoto and Oolaryko had come in to my life, then Cousin Tom and Cousin Annie, then the Hanson family, and finally Kinuktut and Ootnuyaw – so many wonderfully kind people!"

      In August, Alec accompanies Aunt Mary to Eskimo Point, reunites with people there, and participates in her interviews. Unfortunately, the Inuit interviewees prove uncooperative, and Alec is forced to accept that, in their eyes, he has changed and is no longer part of their world, nor is he part of the white world. "In fact, I was in a sort of no-man's land." However, he concludes, "In many ways I felt at home in the White Man's world, even though I wasn't white." Alec decides he will use his talents as a sculptor to teach the white man to respect his "Inuit heritage . . . and that is how I would help my people and take pride in my Inuit heritage."

      Career teacher Wesley's first novel traces the struggles of a young Inuit orphan as he adapts to life in the white man's world. Alec experiences a remarkable degree of kindness and assistance from most of the people he encounters, unlike many young Inuit who find the challenges overwhelming. The novel succeeds in depicting life in the north and paints the barren landscape with kindly brush strokes as it follows Alec's journey from the Barrens' community to the HBC trading posts and finally to the big cities of Winnipeg and Ottawa. Alec is an appealing protagonist, intelligent, thoughtful, and adaptable, whose observations and commentaries at times tend to be somewhat mature for his age. The novel is not an easy read, and young readers of Alec's age group may find the vocabulary difficult. As well as enhance the flow and pace, Wesley's using more dialogue and activity, rather than descriptions of feelings and thoughts, might strengthen the story and allow the reader to draw conclusions about character traits and personalities by actions rather than by didactic prose. Alec's Journey could be useful in social studies and history classes, and fiction featuring an Inuit protagonist is a welcome addition to school and public library collections.

      Some punctuation issues, especially overuse of the exclamation mark, and inconsistencies in names and events suggest additional editing would be helpful.


Darleen Golke, a former high school teacher-librarian, writes from Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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